This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Christian folk singer/songwriter Derek Webb. In the first part, Derek talked about growing up in the South, how he found music, and his ideas for a new music industry. Today, he finishes up his critique of the industry and offers thoughts on culture and church.
Patrol: So you think that the way the music industry is set up right now lends itself to making quality music that lasts?
Webb: I don’t think the record companies are set up to encourage really great art, I think record companies are set up to produce really commercial art. And there’s a really big difference. Sometimes they can be one and the same, sometimes really great art is also popular—but not often. There’s just a handful of bands that can really defy that. U2 is one of them; they typically put out really great records, but they’re since they’re pretty much the biggest band in the world they still sell really well. That’s more the exception to the rule.
Speaking of U2, Bono said when U2 was accepting their Hall of Fame induction, that if U2 were starting today they probably wouldn’t get signed, and they wouldn’t have had the luxury of their first three or four records to figure themselves out artistically. Bands nowadays, literally if you can’t sell a million records in a business quarter, you’re going to get dropped, like there’s no place for you. So the industry is just not set up, anymore, to really nurture artists, and I think that’s really unfortunate. But I think out of the ashes of that something new is kind of being born. It’s going to be like the 50’s again in terms of being able to have your music and heard and be discovered and find fans.
Patrol: You’ve said before that selling music based on your worldview doesn’t make sense, and the more you do it the less sense it makes. Can you explain that?
Webb: Yeah. Christian music is the only genre of music that I can find that is literally marketed and distributed solely based on the worldview of the artist. And I don’t think that that makes any sense. I’ll give you an example of why: You go to one of these big Christian music festivals and, you’re likely to see like a punk band with a horn section play, and then you’re going to see someone on acoustic guitar singing worship songs, and then you’re going to see somebody who your parents would listen to, some kind of contemporary singer singing to background track, and then you’re going to see this heavy metal screamo band. It just doesn’t make any sense, stylistically.
Christian music is not a style of music, it’s a statement about the belief of an artist, kind of, and it’s barely that any more. To me it just doesn’t make sense to categorize artists based on what they believe, I think it would make a lot more sense, and it would be more consistent with the belief of Christian artists, to be honest, to categorize based on what style of music they play and allow them to move in and out of different types of music that all the artists’ have. In the Bible you don’t see all of Jesus’ followers huddling and mingling together . . You see people in the market places and in the town squares having discussions and conversations along with all these people with all these different worldviews. They’re part of the fabric of the culture, they’re not a separate sub-culture.
Right now in the music world, the “marketplace and town squares” is the Billboard Top 200. Yet you see few Christian artists really working hard enough and doing good enough art to be in that bigger worldview conversation that’s happening. Instead you see them sort of relegated to this kind of meaningless little Christian chart, well it’s like since we’re not good enough to compete with the real music, the real general market music, the big worldview discussions happening. We’re going to have our own awards ceremonies, the Dove Awards, or our little radio stations, our own little charts, and our own little world to make ourselves feel significant because ultimately the art we’re making just isn’t earning ourselves a seat at the table to really communicate what we believe by way of great art.
I think it’d be a great thing to see the whole Christian music industry go away, and have to see all these so-called Christian artists kind of scatter and find for themselves a place to make music in the real world, or discover that if they’re not good enough to make it, maybe someone’s been enabling them for some years by allowing them to have a career in Christian music when they couldn’t have a music career outside of it. Because it’s a piece of cake to get a Christian record deal. I could get you a Christian music deal, I could get my neighbor who can’t carry a tune a Christian record deal. If they could articulate their beliefs in such a way to satisfy a record company, then it doesn’t matter the music can be terrible. And that’s such a bad policy.
Patrol: What are some of the things that you haven’t been able to do in your music because you’re in the Christian market? You’ve said there are things that you’ve wanted to do that you know you couldn’t get away with. What does that really look like?
Webb: I probably feel that. There’s probably moments where I feel I surely I can’t talk about this, surely I can’t say this, or address these typical kinds of issues. There’s no precedent for this in Christian music, they don’t use this language, or whatever it is.
I think I probably went on to say that it ultimately doesn’t concern me, that my work as an artist has got to be discerning what filters are on me as an artist. How do I filter myself and edit myself before I even have a chance to express myself? For an artist that’s a terrible thing to do, I should feel the liberty to make whatever art is instinctive for me, and if artist has a certain idea or has a certain story they want to tell, or an certain issue they feel compelled to bring up, and they stop themselves short because they think what will the labels think, what will radio thing, and what will the retail think, there’s no way I can do this then you’re really not doing your job as an artist if you allow those kinds of pressures to dictate the art that you’re making.
And so I try to find out, and discover how am I filtering myself? What voices am I listening to and who am I afraid of and what’s keeping me from being really instinctive about the art that I’m making. To find out what those filters are and dismantle them. . . . I’m trying to not worry, or care, or listen to what people say I can or cannot do as an artist. I’m trying to dismantle those filters, and I think it’s really hard to do that, because in the Christian art world there is so much taboo. There is so much fear that people will kind of throw at you, so you have to believe that there’s a particular way you see things and a particular voice that you have and a particular language you use to express yourself and communicate these ideas, and as an artist you’re completely unique.
If you pay too much attention to those filters, and do nothing but homogenize those thoughts and that story just to be like everyone else, so you sell more records, because that’s safer, then you’re really cheating yourself. That’s not the work of an artist. And most certainly not the work of an artist who follows Jesus.
Patrol: So do you feel free to do whatever you want to do even though that might not feel acceptable to some people in the music industry?
Webb: I absolutely do. There’s not really been a point at which I have, at least not since I’ve been a solo artist, I’ve really been careful to guard my instincts and my rights to do certain things as an artist and I’ve had to explain myself a couple of times to my label [INO Records], but they are so supportive, and they’ve really supported me, and made no apologizes for me, and fought for me in retail. And Christian retail will come back and say we won’t carry this record, this isn’t appropriate, and they’ve been really good about going to them and really articulating why it is that I feel it’s important, and why they feel it’s important to support me as an artist in terms of dealing with more nuanced and complicated subject matters than a lot of Christian art usually does. So I really do, I feel at complete liberty to do or say whatever I feel is important.
I’m not completely there, I’m always finding more nuanced and finer filters. I’m always discovering ways I am continuing to edit myself in ways I think are inappropriate, I’m not all the way there, but on the whole I think I am.
Patrol: One of the big issues in culture and in the church which you haven’t touched on a lot is sexuality. Is that something you’re interested in addressing? Have you â€˜filtered’ it, perhaps?
Webb: No. I don’t feel like it’s something I’ve ever kept off the table in terms of content. I have dealt with it a little bit. Especially on The Ringing Bell, there’s a little bit of that. But it’s most certainly an issue I’m concerned about. Because I see it as a really big issue in the church, there’s a tremendous amount of discrimination in terms of theâ€¦ There seems to be this whole other level of issues for some people, and especially in the areas of sexuality.
So we just don’t realize how completely the same we are. Especially in terms of how we struggle, who we are. We’re not different types of people, we’re all exactly the same. But especially in terms of sexuality the church really misses that. And the church does a really, really poor job of really loving people who have different ideas about sexuality than we do. Such poor job of that.
Especially since I have so many friends who are kind of all over the fence, in terms of sexual issues, I’m really interested in engaging the church a little bit on that issue. And I think that’s probably going to happen on this new record.
Patrol: You’ve been pretty vocal about things you see in Western Christianity that need to change. What do you see as the biggest problem?
Webb:Yeah, that’s a really big question. You know, I won’t be able to really sufficiently answer it, I think that probably one of the main issues we have, definitely one of the main issues I have, as part of the church, as a member of the church, is that I think we are kind of blinded to the fact that we are much more like the arrogant church leadership of Jesus’ day than we are like Jesus. We are much more like the few who Jesus reserved his most harsh language for, the Pharisees, the ones who used the law self-righteously to judge people and condemn people and publicly humiliate people. We are more like that, than we are like Jesus, who lived with and loved, and you know, laughed and wept, lived life with the least and the lost and the most difficult people in culture to love.
And that’s why he left behind statements like Matthew 25, where he talks about if we are those who love Him and follow Him, Jesus, then we will be compelled, he’s talking about the day of judgment, when he comes back, the ones who were his followers, the ones whose hearts were changed, and the evidence of their hearts changing, the evidence of them being followers of him, is that they were compelled to live with and love the hardest people in culture to love. He talks about you know giving food to the hungry, putting clothes on the naked, caring for the widows and orphans, visiting those in prison, loving our neighbors well, loving our enemies, loving radically, loving the people who hate and oppose us and disagree with us the most. He literally says that is the work of following him, and yet we judge and point fingers and picket and boycott the people who hate and disagree with us the most. Jesus would tell us that our reaction should be the opposite, that we should love those people, so much so that the arrogant church leadership should question us and think that we’re nuts just like they thought he was nuts and questioned him.
We are disliked for all the wrong reasons, Christians in America. We are hated for all the wrong reasons. We’re not hated for the same reason Jesus was hated, we’re hated for the same reasons Jesus hated the pharisees. So we need to be so careful about that, as we kind of take the moniker of Christian, as we take the very name of Jesus and put it on ourselves and identify ourselves with us. We need to be careful that we are actually acting like Jesus, opposed to acting like the people Jesus judged the most harshly, which is the arrogant church leadership, the Pharisees. We need to be careful, because it’s sending such a mixed message, and that’s a huge issue. And I think that if we could just pause for a moment and just look at Jesus’ life and look at the way he dealt with people and treated people, in the context that he did it, I think we would find that we’re probably on the wrong side.
Patrol: So, because we all can’t wait, how far down the road will the next record be?
Webb: It’ll definitely come out in 2008. It’ll definitely be out next year. But I don’t have any idea, at this point when.
Patrol: Any spoilers?
Webb:It’s just kind of a twinkle in my eye right now. I do have some really specific ideas in my head in terms of style and sound, and strangely enough it is completely different from anything else I’ve ever done or in terms of where I hope to go next.
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